Art Seen

Manet : ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ 1881-2, Courtauld Institute Galleries. 28 4 2011
Link to the image
It has moved. The Courtauld is being refurbished and this Manet has moved to another room, with the usual bench in a slightly different position. Does that change the way one sees such a well known image?
Perhaps. She (the barmaid, Suzon) is not, as I have always assumed, looking blankly, like for example Renoir’s model in ‘La Loge’ next door. In fact Manet’s model is looking slightly downwards, the Madonna of Humility look. But, if we are a man looking at her in the presumed position the angles place the viewer, then she would staring at maybe our chest (where we kept our pocket book) or perhaps lower (to where we keep… etc). Given the general assumption of male customers to the Folies, that the barmaids were willing to supplement their income through prostitution, this would take the layers of themes in this painting one step further. She is more of an active participant than earlier readings have imagined, or do we the male viewer just wish it so? Either way, it is a sorrowful, weary look.
The mirror, notice the impermanence of those things represented e.g. smoke (a return to the Vanitas theme, more on this below), fashion, (the women with the gloves on the balcony) theatre (the trapeze artist). Notice how her presence on this side of the mirror is stressed by her centrality (on the vertical axis) and the pyramidal composition of her form. Notice also that from this new viewing place/ bench the bottles on the bar actually appear empty, without alcoholic contents, certainly see-through. Are they in fact empty bottles just here for display? All is surface in this new world; to see and be seen is all that matters.
The Vanitas Theme. This is Manet’s last major painting, he died in 1883, he was already extremely ill from syphilis and presumably undergoing the hideous cures (‘One night in Venus, a lifetime in Mercury’ as the contemporary rhyme went). Whilst painting this, he was already having difficulty standing to paint and would shortly lose one of his legs. There are many small paintings of peonies in the last years, and a vase of flowers stands on the counter, it is echoed by the corsage in Suzon’s dress. Flowers, smoke, transitory activities, Vanitas would seem to be an obvious theme for a seriously ill man. But if you combine this with looking very carefully at her gaze, the more you look, the more you realise how young she is. Particularly when you oppose her slimness with the thicker waist and middle aged hairdo of her reflection.
In other words the Vanitas theme extends beyond the personal. As always, this is not a painting about Manet the man, it is about what it was like to be a participant in this modern world, and how quickly the only commodity many of those participants had to sell would lose its value; their youth. I recognise the sentiment.

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